I am not a big fan of weddings. The worst part? The toasts, which often seem to serve as an opportunity for various members of the wedding party to jockey for the honor of who knows the bride and/or groom best. During all the speechifying, it becomes painfully clear how much we each, as individuals, want big events to be about ourselves. Given that real-life wedding speeches make many people want to stuff those little packets of bird seed in their ears, it’s rather daring of Jonathan Demme’s recent movie Rachel Getting Married (out on DVD this month) to ask us to invest ourselves in a half an hour of random fictional characters toasting themselves at a rehearsal dinner. Why should we bother?
For one thing, the movie reveals the narcissism of our therapeutic culture. I’m not criticizing therapy here: it’s a good and helpful thing for many people, including myself. However, there’s a difference between therapy and telling the story of your pain over and over again. Rachel Getting Married juxtaposes Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with wedding-related events such as the rehearsal dinner, subtly suggesting some parallels—and contrasts. The link between the two settings is the character of Kym (Anne Hathaway, in her justly Oscar-nominated performance), the titular Rachel’s troubled younger sister, who’s been let out of rehab for the wedding on the condition that she attend daily Al-Anon meetings. When Kym stands up to make a speech at the rehearsal dinner, her obvious narcissism grates on our nerves: she spends several minutes referencing her own addiction before declaring that she is “making amends” to her sister (one of the Twelve Steps) for “I don’t know, everything.” Rachel lashes out at Kym afterwards for calling so much attention to herself, but the irony is that Kym’s self-centeredness is only more above-board than that of the other toast-ers.
(There are exceptions to the self-serving speeches: the mother of the groom makes a simple statement about how this gathering reminds her of what heaven will be like—the bride’s family is white, the groom’s family is black, the friends are of many ethnicities—and that she’s overjoyed to be rehearsing for heaven now. The expression on Kym’s face in response to this speech is enough to earn Hathaway her Oscar nomination: it’s half-incredulous, since in many ways this event involves reliving her own personal hell, but also half-longing, longing to feel that joy in community that the groom’s mother genuinely feels.)
In contrast to the rehearsal dinner, the self-revelation that occurs at the Al-Anon meetings seems more positively portrayed: there are appropriate contexts for discussing your problems. In many ways, Kym seems more open and “at home” at the meetings than she is with her family. When she tells the group about a tragic event in her youth, she’s not telling it to call attention to herself; she’s telling it because she wants to understand how the other group members have gotten to a place where they rely on, as Al-Anon puts it, a “higher power.” Kym tells them that she doesn’t know whether she wants to believe in a God who could forgive her for what she’s done. It’s the most honest thing she says in the entire movie.
However, even in therapy, Kym hasn’t always told her stories of pain with the goal of healing. In one scene, while Rachel and Kym are at the salon getting their hair done, a young man who has been staring at Kym comes over to talk to her. He looks at her and speaks to her as if she is the most amazing person on the planet. He remembers her from one of the many rehab facilities she’s frequented over the past several years, and he tells her that her story, which she shared during a therapy exercise, gave him the courage to change his life. As Rachel listens to this conversation over Kym’s shoulder, she becomes increasingly agitated and finally storms out of the salon. It turns out Kym’s “story” was a completely fabricated tale about how she and her sister were sexually abused, and how she saved Rachel from an eating disorder. It’s not as if Kym doesn’t have a true story of pain to share, but at an earlier part of her journey, it seems, it was easier to tell a story in which she was both victim and savior instead of the guilty party. This scene raises the question of how often spilling our guts to one another is “courageous,” as the man in the salon calls Kym. How often is self-revelation, instead, merely another of the masks we hide behind to keep the Healer away from us? Yet God, as the author of truth, can take even a false story and inspire true change. And we see God’s grace reflected back through this young man as he stares at Kym and declares her beautiful and brave.
As the weekend wears on, Kym talks less and less. If nowhere near completely healed, she can at least let the occasion be about her sister, not about her own issues. Kym’s strained relationship with her mother reaches a crisis point over the weekend, but, by the end of the film, she seems to have gained the wisdom to know that that’s one of the things she can’t change (the Serenity Prayer closes out one of the Al-Anon meetings shown in the film), at least not over the course of a few days.
Rachel Getting Married is not an easy film, but it is worth watching. It’s particularly helpful to me in thinking about when sharing our painful stories is narcissistic and when it’s necessary for our healing or the healing of others. I recently participated in a women’s Bible study in which the leader made very clear from the beginning that our discussions were to be focused on discerning God’s character, not spilling all our secrets. Therapy is great, she said, and it has its very important place, and that place is not here. As Rachel Getting Married shows, there are times to share your story and times when it’s best to shut up and enjoy the fact that the party is not about you.